The AMAZE project brings together 28 institutions to develop new metal components which are lighter, stronger and cheaper than conventional parts.
The European Space Agency has unveiled plans to "take 3D printing into the metal age" by building parts for jets, spacecraft and fusion projects. The layered method of assembly also allows intricate designs - geometries which are impossible to achieve with conventional metal casting.
Tungsten alloy components that can withstand temperatures of 3,000C were unveiled at the AMAZE launch on Tuesday at London's Science Museum. At such extreme temperatures they can survive inside nuclear fusion reactors and on the nozzles of rockets.
"We want to build the best quality metal products ever made. Objects you can't possibly manufacture any other way," said David Jarvis, ESA Head of New Materials and Energy Research. "To build a fusion reactor, you somehow have to take the heat of the sun and put it in a metal box. 3,000C is as hot as you can imagine for engineering. If we can get 3D metal printing to work, we are well on the way to commercial nuclear fusion."
General Electric uses similar techniques to make fuel injectors for aircraft engines. The Chinese? They're already claiming they can make components using 3D printing to output load-bearing parts for aircraft and aerospace applications. Late in the summer of this year, NASA revealed that they had indeed tested a 3D printed rocket engine part.
AMAZE, which stands in for Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste and Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products, is a coming-together of the best European minds in the technology. The project has collected 28 partners from the European industrial and academic worlds (read Airbus, Norsk Titanium, Cranfield University, EADS, and heavy hitters in fusion research), and you have a solid brain trust fund with a $27 million dollar investment. Factories are being readied in France, Germany, Italy, Norway and the UK to develop the industrial supply chain necessary to feed the project.
So what are they after?
"Our ultimate aim is to print a satellite in a single piece. One chunk of metal, that doesn't need to be welded or bolted," said Jarvis."To do that would save 50% of the costs – millions. One common problem is porosity - small air bubbles in the product. We need to understand these defects and eliminate them to achieve industrial quality."